By Semanur Karaman
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a rather unique and quite technical process of the UN Human Rights Council, where each member-state’s human rights record is reviewed every four years.
It is an important mechanism, as all member states go through this examination without discrimination. Civil society is provided an opportunity to submit reports prior to a country’s examination to ensure that an impartial investigation, which incorporates the voices of independent observers, takes places. Moreover, member states constructively critique each other’s commitment to safeguarding universally recognised human rights norms.
During each country’s UPR examination, activists fly hundreds of kilometres to arrive at the UN in Geneva to meet with government representatives and participate in events where they can raise their concerns regarding their own country’s human rights performance.
This is how the usual UPR process is. Until Egypt’s own UPR examination, one could argue that even when the most notorious autocracies are examined there was considerable civil society presence at the Palais de Nations.
A new low was experienced during Egypt’s UPR examination, scheduled for 5 November, 2014. The international community was dismayed at the level of intimidation cast upon Egyptian activists.
There were almost no independent human rights activists from Egypt on that very day in November. There were however, self-proclaimed alleged “activists” from government-oriented NGOs, that are called GONGOs, attempting to convince the international community that Egypt has embarked upon a new journey to democratisation.
What is nerve-wracking is that the space created for independent civil society to express their observations and deliver their first hand findings was dominated by people who were advocating the idea that Egypt is the dictionary definition of fundamental freedoms, contrary to all existing evidence!
If this isn’t symptomatic of how dire the human rights crises in Egypt is, let me break it down for you even further.
Egypt is a member state to the UN, and through a number of international treaties it has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it is legally obliged to recognise the UN as a legitimate mechanism with which its citizens can engage freely, without fear of reprisal. Closing the doors of the UN to Egyptian nationals is equal to land-locking them in an open air prison, which also happens to be a safe haven for gross human rights violations.
Prior to Egypt’s UPR examination, Egyptian civil society received numerous threats indicating reprisals if they even travelled to Geneva to speak about the situation in their own country. Seven human rights organisations boycotted the process and stated they “decided not to participate in any of the UPR’s proceedings in fear that their participation might result in reprisal or possible persecution”, adding that the fear is “especially pertinent in the context of the hostile climate in which they work”.
The quite saddening irony is that Al-Sisi used the UN for his own purposes during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, when he addressed the international community for about 16 minutes. So in Egypt, the UN is apparently accessible only to the President; the very same person whom independent human rights organisations denounce for mass killings, unlawful detentions and arbitrary restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
On 20 March, the outcome report of Egypt’s UPR will be adopted. This time, the international community must abide by its moral and legal obligations to no longer treat Al-Sisi as a legitimate leader, and hold him accountable to the grave human rights violations he deliberately orchestrated using the state’s security apparatus.
Semanur Karaman majored in International Relations & History at Koc University in Istanbul and holds a MA in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at the University of Essex. Semanur was the recipient of the Hansard Fellowship, which allowed her to study public policy and democracy at the London School of Economics and work simultaneously as a Parliamentary Assistant in the UK. Semanur currently works as a Policy and Research Officer for a global civil society organisation which monitors the state of civic freedoms and encourages citizen participation in all levels of decision making.